Monthly Archives: October 2011

Review of EBOOK Snuff – Book 39 of the Discworld series

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a policeman taking a holiday would barely have had time to open his suitcase before he finds his first corpse. And Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is on holiday in the pleasant and innocent countryside, but not for him a mere body in the wardrobe, but many, many bodies and an ancient crime more terrible than murder.
He is out of his jurisdiction, out of his depth, out of bacon sandwiches, occasionally snookered and occasionally out of his mind, but not out of guile. Where there is a crime there must be a finding, there must be a chase and there must be a punishment. They say that in the end all sins are forgiven. But not quite all…

snuffFor those of you who may have only recently landed on the planet and therefore haven’t yet picked up a Discworld novel, my strong piece of advice is not to continue reading Snuff, but do yourselves a huge favour and – no, you don’t have to go right back to the very start of this hilarious and wonderfully inventive world, although I would recommend it – but do at least read Guards, Guards!, Night Watch and Thud! before tucking into Snuff. I don’t suggest for one moment that you’ll spend the novel floundering around in a morass of incomprehension if you do skip these books – Pratchett is far too accomplished to lock any of his books so tightly into the overarching world – but you certainly will gain more if you understand and know more about this complicated protagonist.
As for the rest of us, the question has to be – does this book tick the boxes? Do we find ourselves sucked into Pratchett’s imaginative invention, and seared by Vimes’s simmering anger against injustice?

Well, one of the major characters that normally features in Discworld novels is missing. Vimes has been frog-marched off to the country estate with his family to get a much-needed break and introduce Young Sam to the countryside. So Ankh-Morpok isn’t the vivid backdrop to this book and we have Vimes’s rather bemused and amusing reaction to country life as the setting to all the action. Pratchett makes up for this hole by giving us slices of humour in Vimes’s jaundiced reactions.  However, the humour turns into something more sombre when Vimes finds himself confronted with a goblin settlement on his land and begins to discover just how downtrodden and persecuted they are. The tale is delivered with Pratchett’s customary slick handling of narrative tension and I found myself – despite my best intention to really savour the book – zipping through it to find what happens next.

What Snuff doesn’t do, is give us any further major insights into Vimes as a character. We learn a bit more about Young Sam, as a boy of six and Pratchett gives us more details about yet another species in the Discworld genus – goblins. As ever, those details are both poignant and hilarious – vintage Pratchett, in fact. However, by the end of the book I got the sense that we were witnessing the beginning of Vimes learning to like himself just a little bit more.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline which was both enjoyably familiar and yet different enough to hold my interest.  The frantic journey along a storm-swollen river in an oxen powered cargo boat is one of the standout Discworld action scenes, in my opinion. And as a committed Pratchett fan, I found Snuff right up there as one of the stronger offerings in the Discworld series.
9/10

Review of Spellwright by Blake Charlton

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During a panel at the recent Fantasycon 2011, the wonderful and intelligent Juliet McKenna commented that it is a sign of a genre’s maturity when authors increasingly start playing with the recognised rules and mash conventions up in interesting ways. Enter Blake Charlton, who has certainly taken the word spell far more literally than most Fantasy writers – but then he suffers from dyslexia.  Nicodemus Weal has trained at the stronghold of Starhaven since he was a boy. His mentor, the famous wizard Magister Shannon, taught him how to cast spells made from luminescent magical runes, how to peel written words off a page and make them physically real. Initially, Nicodemus showed great promise. Able to forge runes with great speed, he was once thought to be the Halcyon – a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent the apocalypse known as the Disjunction.

There was only one problem. Nicodemus couldn’t spell. Every time he touched a magical text, he unintentionally corrupted it, spellwrightcreating a dangerous, potentially deadly misspell. Now aged twenty-five, while his peers advance as wizards, he is still an apprentice, dealing with the devastating knowledge that he has failed to live up to the expectations of his teachers and classmates.  But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are factions who believe someone like Nicodemus could hold great power – power than might be used as easily for evil as for good.

Despite the cool cover and intriguing blurb, this isn’t a book that will necessarily grab you by the throat and whisk you along from page one. Charlton silts up the initial action with a lot of exposition and scene setting – and while I’ll concede that the world and concept is a complex, multi-layered one, I do feel he slightly overdoes it. However, my advice is to stick with it. This is a book that goes on delivering, steadily gaining pace and readability throughout until at the end, I wondered why I ever considered giving up halfway through the second chapter.

Nicodemus is a well written, enjoyable character – it makes a refreshing change to meet a protagonist who has miserably failed to fulfil his golden destiny. I enjoyed his chippy, suspicious view of the world. His ability to whip out a spell in no time flat worked well with his inability to necessarily see things that were plainly under his nose – having worked with dyslexic students for a chunk of my teaching career, this unevenness in ability and talent seemed entirely convincing. All the main characters are reasonably complex, although Shannon is outstanding, with hidden depths and a very interesting history that isn’t revealed till far later into the book when we really care about him.

While the initial idea of spelling spells is a cool one, Charlston doesn’t lean too heavily on it throughout the book. His eerie stone stronghold built by a lost race high in the mountains makes a compelling backdrop to the action and as the book builds to the climactic ending, I was thoroughly engrossed and wanting to read the next instalment in this intriguing Fantasy debut.
8/10

Review of EBOOK Eternal Aftermath by Michael D Griffiths

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I read the Kindle edition of this book, as it was quicker and cheaper than waiting for the printed edition to plop through the letterbox – and this, after all, is what I bought my Kindle for in the first place…

Eternal-Aftermath-Griffiths-D-Michael-9781611990232Devon has made a huge mistake by leaving the side of his wife and the safety of the compound on a gamble that the plague of undead has run its course. On his own, with thousands of Tucson’s restless dead tracking his every move, is there any way he can hope to survive? He might have a chance with the undead, but his real enemy could end up being his fellow survivors. If Devon isn’t careful, he may find out that there are worse things than death, and those who have already perished were the lucky ones.

This is one of the latest offerings in the slew of zombie books avalanching onto our book shelves – a sub-genre of the horror market whose popularity shows no sign of abating. Griffiths’ first book was a modern take on Lovecraftian horror with his hero, Jack Primus hitting the road in an effort to overcome the terrors dogging him. Eternal Aftermath has a far more claustrophobic feel, as five years after the zombie-producing plague that enveloped the globe, the remains of the human race are reduced to living in armed encampments. And when Devon finds himself battling – in every sense of the word – to survive, he has to find his own hiding place.

Energy crackles off the pages – a hallmark of Griffiths’ writing – and the plotting and narrative tension is also very polished. In between the action scenes, we get a chance to really get to know Devon as more than just an effective killing machine with a justifiable chip on his shoulder – which is so often the staple of these books. As a result, I really cared about him and his companions and found myself unwilling to put down the Kindle, but read on into the small hours to find out what would happen next.

This isn’t my favourite genre by a long country mile. Partly because I’m rather squeamish, and partly because it is characters that always draw me into a story and often action horror tales don’t spend much time on character development. In amongst all the mayhem, Griffiths manages to flesh out Devon, warts and all. I found it satisfyingly realistic that he was strongly tempted to shoot his wife when given the opportunity, for example. And those lulls in the action scenes also provides plenty of gathering tension, backlighting the fight scenes with greater emotional investment.

The scene setting is excellent, and clearly one of Griffths’ strengths. It is particularly crucial in this book that he manages to clearly portray the various backdrops to the action and at no time did I find myself floundering or backtracking to work out exactly where I was while it was all kicking off. Which is something I regularly have to do during action scenes, partly because my spatial awareness isn’t that wonderful – and partly because authors often tend to skim over the where and when as fists and bullets start flying. Not so, in Eternal Aftermath.

Any niggles? Well, there were a few typos and the left-hand margin keeps indenting in an annoying way that I’m more used to seeing in self-published novels – and given that I wasn’t paying a rock bottom price for this book, I think the formatting issues should be addressed by Living Dead Press sooner rather than later. However – unlike a lot of self-published books – these glitches weren’t on the scale that significantly intruded, but this would have had a 9 if it hadn’t been for those – the writing certainly merits it.
Griffiths satisfactorily ties up the plot, but leaves the possibility open for a sequel, which I very much hope he will soon start writing. I want to know more about how Devon and his little band of followers are going to cope – and whether he can keep true to his ideals in this grisly Aftermath…
8/10

Review of Cold Magic – Book 1 of The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

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This offering is the first of Kate Elliott’s latest world – and if you’re a fantasy fan you’ll know that she is one of the leading talents in the field. She is excellent at providing interesting, multi-layered worlds and is also adept at producing satisfying complex characters – a combination that doesn’t always go together. However, there is a major shift in this series – Elliott tells the story in Cold Magic in first person POV throughout. Up to now, she has shown herself very capable of fielding a large cast of characters without overwhelming her readers or losing any momentum. Can she manage to convey the full richness of her world through this single character’s viewpoint?

As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. coldmagicAt a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. And the cousins are about to discover the full ruthlessness of this rule.

Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood and old feuds, Cat is forced to marry a Cold Mage. As she is carried away to live a new life, fresh dangers threaten her every move and secrets form a language she cannot read. At least, not yet.  But both cousins carry their own hidden gifts and these will shape great changes to come. For in the depths of this treacherous world, the Wild Hunt stirs in darkness and dragons are waking from their sleep.

And, make no mistake, this is a rich and interesting world. Elliott herself describes it as “An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.”  So do we gain a sense of the full layered intricacy of this world through Cat’s eyes? The answer has to be – no, we don’t. Not even after reading the second book in the series, Cold Fire, do I get a sense that I’ve done more than graze the surface of this fascinating world. Am I bothered? Not, particularly, no. This might be a world that Elliott may well revisit with another series – the trolls, actually descended from dinosaurs, only play a walk-on part in this Cat-centred adventure and I’d love to read more about them. But even if Elliott doesn’t decide to use this world again, I’m still not going to lose much sleep over it. If she chooses to roll out a world of this richness and then only play in a corner of it, that’s hardly going to impact on my reading pleasure – unless she doesn’t produce a sufficiently interesting storyline with a convincingly complex cast of characters. And she does.

For starters, Cat is completely believable as a twenty year old. I get more than a tad fed up with ‘young’ characters who when confronted with difficult situations suddenly produce the wisdom and finesse of a fifty-something. Cat is impetuous, a bit of an airhead who loves teasing her cousin, and is very interested in clothes. Always. The driving relationship within this book is her attachment with Bee, her cousin and best friend. The romantic storyline is a lot stronger in Cold Fire, where Cat’s relationship with Andevai, her husband, is examined in more detail – along with the unfolding plotline about exactly who is her father.

Like Elliott’s world, this tale is something of a mash-up. There are elements easily recognisable from epic Fantasy – a power struggle involving scary magic users and super-talented individuals with a Destiny; but there is also a fairly strong romantic element and some of Cat’s character traits wouldn’t be out of place in an urban fantasy. However, one of the main engines driving the book is the political unrest coming from the bottom up – the fact that the population are increasingly unhappy at the way the Mages have stepped into the power vacuum left once the Romans retreated, which has echoes of Julia E. McKenna’s Lescari Revolution series. This is a sign that the Fantasy genre is all grown up and fully mature, when its most capable authors are able to play these sorts of games with the sub-genres. I’m really hoping the fans will prove to be as flexible.

A thoroughly enjoyable read by an accomplished writer at the height of her powers, I’m very much looking forward to reading the last book in the series and recommend you track down this gem.
10/10

Review of Heart of the Mirage – Book 1 of The Mirage Makers by Glenda Larke

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This is the first book in a fantasy trilogy that fans of Kate Elliott and Trudi Canavan shouldn’t miss.

heartofthemirageStolen from her people as a child and raised as a citizen of the Tyranian Empire, Ligea Gayed is the obvious choice to despatch to her homeland, occupied Kardiastan, with orders to root out a rebel conspiracy. At first, she devotes herself to her new assignment with zeal. Adopted daughter of the Empire’s greatest general, and possessing a fearsome reputation within the ruthless Imperial spy network known as the Brotherhood, Ligea views herself as a loyal servant of Tyrans. But blood will out, and with each day she spends among her parents’ people, her disciplined self-image crumbles a little. And there are secrets in Kardiastan, secrets that will inevitably force Ligea to choose between her upbringing and her birthright.

Yeah, I know… it does sound rather familiar – but Larke’s fine writing and takes the classic heroine-with-a-hidden-but-special-past scenario and gives it a fresh immediacy in her outstanding character Ligea. I’m a sucker for a spiky, three-dimensional protagonist with plenty of flaws – and Ligea has plenty of them as she describes her privileged life as a high ranking member of the feared Brotherhood. The first person narrative grabbed me and drew me into the story, which zips along at an impressive pace while giving a strong sense of first Tyran society and then the constrasting situation in Kardiastan. The world building is deftly done, without any tedious info dumping, as we follow Ligea’s journey through two different worlds. While I saw some of the plotpoints coming, there are plenty of unexpected twists that kept me turning the pages as the narrative tension continues ramping up right to the conclusion. I was pleased to note that while there are a number of dangling plotlines waiting to be tied up in the two subsequent books, the storyline in this first instalment was brought to an entirely satisfactory ending. It always peeves me to get all the way to the end of a novel in a multi-book series and find that I have to wait till the next volume before a main plot point is resolved.

The flashes of humour – not particularly prevalent in this particular sub-genre – were also enjoyable as Brand, Ligea’s stroppy slave, stomps along in her wake giving plenty of unwanted advice. Themes running through this book won’t come as a shock to high fantasy fans – the tension between might and right; how to handle great power; the importance of free will.

Any niggles? Well, I do have a problem with the name of Tyr – and its inhabitants, the Tyrans. While obviously based upon Roman society, with slavery as the cornerstone of its society, I do think that Larke should have trusted her readers a bit more to recognise the faultlines in such a society without leading us by the nose in using such a blatantly unsubtle name. It slightly irked me throughout the book that all Tyrans needed was the addition of one letter to turn their name into tyrants… It’s the sort of device I’d expect from someone a lot less gifted and able than Larke. But other than that, I found the book a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing read and have already started on the sequel, The Shadow of Tyr.
8/10

Review of Thorn Queen – Book 2 of The Dark Swan series by Richelle Mead

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I’d read Storm Born and enjoyed it sufficiently that when I saw Thorn Queen was now out, I decided to give it a go.

Eugenie Markham is a shaman for hire. She’s paid to bind and banish creatures from the Otherworld… But something happened after her last battle. She became queen of the Thorn Land. That said, with her kingdom in tatters, her love life in chaos and Eugenie eager to avoid the prophecy about her firstborn destroying mankind, the job’s really not all it’s cracked up to be.

Now young girls are disappearing from the Otherworld and no one seems willing to find out why. Or put a stop to it. Not that Eugenie’sthornqueen fazed by spilling fey blood, but this enemy is shrewd, subtle and dangerous – and nursing a very personal grudge. Eugenie must venture deep into the Otherworld and trust in a power she can barely control. She may be a reluctant queen but she’s vowed to do her duty, even if that means facing the darkest – and deadliest – side of her own nature…

In many ways this is classic urban fantasy. A feisty, yet torn heroine with more power than she knows what to do with, along with an overly complicated love life. However, I enjoyed the twist at the end of the first book that saddles Eugenie with the responsibility of a fey kingdom – something she is clearly not equipped to deal with. I liked the fact that Mead doesn’t put a gloss on her rather self-centred approach and as the book is in first person viewpoint, we get a ringside seat to Eugenie’s gradual appreciation of just how much her own actions impact on the populace within the Thorn Kingdom. In fact, this book is all about Eugenie’s uncertain journey towards emotional maturity and her attempts to cope with her inherited powers. And along the way, there is plenty of action – notably in the bedroom. When Eugenie isn’t having enjoyable and fairly graphic sex, she is trying to juggle the responsibilities of being a monarch in the Otherworld with her everyday life among humans and keeping the new developments from her parents. There isn’t the same chirpy humour that was evident in Storm Born, but as Mead piles the pressure onto our hapless heroine, her laconic asides would be rather jarring and out of place.

Mead writes well and I was quickly drawn into the narrative, finding Eugenie’s flailing attempts to come to terms with her new role plausible and appreciated how her subsequent adventures noticeably impact on her character. Far too many protagonists appear to bounce back relatively unscathed after all sorts of horrendous experiences – not so Eugenie. In common with the better written series, the supporting cast of characters also continue to develop in complexity and become more layered and interesting. I’m fascinated to discover whether King Dorian is really a good guy, who’s too cool to let his better nature always come to the surface – or whether he is a complete rat, whose personal charm actually hides the full extent of his selfish nature.

Any quibbles? Well, the cover portrays a sultry, dark haired beauty while the book mentions repeatedly that Eugenie is red haired and green eyed. So Bantam Books get a major slapped wrist for such sloppiness – I personally find this kind of mismatch insulting to both reader and author. Mead is at pains to carefully build up a detailed description of her heroine – and to find the cover depicting a woman so clearly at variance with Eugenie jars all my sensibilities as a reader. What were they thinking over at Bantam – that we wouldn’t notice?? Other than that – no. If you are an urban fantasy fan and haven’t come across this particular series, go find Storm Born and then pick up this sequel – you’ll be rewarded by an enjoyable, well written adventure.
8/10

Fantasycon 2011 – A Conference Virgin’s Viewpoint…

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I travelled on the train along the south coast on a scorching Friday morning with a case the size of a small car, wondering quite why I was all set to turn up at a conference on my own. After all, it was a Fantasy conference and I wrote science fiction. What if everyone openly sneered every time I gave it a mention? Or didn’t want to talk to me because I wasn’t a bearded man with glasses wearing a Jethro Tull t-shirt? Then I recalled the series of efficient, friendly emails I’d exchanged with Marie O’Regan and decided to muzzle my too-vivid imagination and relax as the West Sussex scenery flashed past.

fantasycon2011Brighton was packed. But I was decanted outside the Royal Albion hotel without any problems and checked into a generously sized twin-bed room. The first nice surprise was that my goodie bag was a reusable cloth number from Jo Fletcher Publishing containing free books, along with a glossy souvenir booklet and Conference programme amongst the small forest of flyers and bookmarks. After unpacking, I set off for the ground floor where all the action was, clutching the Pocket Programme. I got talking to a couple of friendly women – another nice surprise – I wasn’t going to stick out like a sore thumb, there were plenty of other women of my age or thereabouts…

I checked my watch and realised that the panel on Maintaining Your Online Presence was just about to start. This panel set the standard of all the rest I managed to attend with well informed, articulate speakers and if I didn’t always wholeheartedly agree with the views expressed, they were always presented with clarity and intelligence. I turned up for the Welcome Party where I met up with a couple of folks – and before I knew it, we were down in the dealers room picking over the books and planning where we were going to eat… Not a sneer in sight.

The whole Conference was a wonderful experience. The best bit? Standing in a large crowded room – and knowing that everyone there had turned up because like me, they loved speculative fiction. Of course, I did know that I wasn’t a total freak – for starters, my husband is also a fan and I’ve also taken part in enough online forums and discussions to realise that there must be lots of us. But I hadn’t ever been physically part of that community, before. It was very emotional and empowering standing in the middle of the crowd of fellow enthusiasts and feeling the buzz.

STANDOUT MOMENTS
• Chatting to Brian Aldiss at the Jo Fletcher Publishing launch party. He was clearly a tad bewildered at the slightly drunken and very brianaldissfulsome praise a young man was heaping upon him. He turned to me with a grin and a shrug – only to be confronted with my own awestruck mumblings about how much his writing had meant to me through the years…
• All the panels were of a high standard, but the Trends in Fantasy Fiction event, moderated by Juliet McKenna, was exceptional in its range and the depth…
• Gathering up a pile of free Solaris books and getting them signed by the likes of Juliet E. McKenna, James Lovegrove, Ian Whates…
• Sitting at a pavement café in Brighton on Friday night with a bunch of new friends as the conversation ranged across our favourite authors…
• The standing ovation given to Brian Aldiss at the Award Ceremony on Sunday afternoon.

Any grumbles? It was a pity about the dreadful PA system which rendered a lot of the acceptance speeches at the Award Ceremony totally inaudible, or produced earwax-curdling feedback howl. But that’s it, really.

Am I going again? You bet. I’m hooked. Busy saving my pennies. It took me far too long to take the plunge, so I’ve got a lot conference catching up to do… See you at the next one!

Eye of the Storm – Book 12 of the Legacy of the Aldenata series by John Ringo

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I picked this military science fiction offering off the shelves as I kept tripping over John Ringo’s name on various forums and thought it was about time I gave one of his books a go.

eyeofthestormWhoever wrote it – a blurb should give a quick taste of what the book has to offer, whereas a synopsis is a condensed version of the story, complete with spoilers. Please don’t get the two confused! If I’d read the jacket cover before diving between the covers, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with this book. The omniscient viewpoint isn’t my favourite style and it was taking me a while to bond with any of the characters – until the event mentioned in the second sentence of the blurb occurred on page 70. It was a total shock and finally hooked me. Which means the hapless souls who’d read the blurting blurb had to wade through 69 pages waiting for this particular shoe to drop… C’mon, Baen! Such inept cover info isn’t playing fair with your readers or writers of Ringo’s calibre, who no doubt crafted the story twist to bond his readers with his major protagonist.

Despite being the twelfth book in the series, I didn’t find myself floundering or particularly adrift – Ringo does a very slick job of filling in any necessary information without losing pace – although I suspect that I would have enjoyed Eye of the Storm a great deal more if I’d had the good sense to start at the beginning of this series. It is a tale of alien treachery and planetary warfare in a universe where soldiers are rejuvenated to enable them to continue fighting into old age to keep humankind from being wiped out. Complete with plenty of action and a large cast of characters.

Ringo mostly keeps the plot swinging along at a good clip. He is clearly knowledgeable about military protocols and although his characterisation isn’t particularly detailed or deep it is certainly fit for purpose, aided by realistic dialogue with regular dollops of humour. Despite plenty of action, Ringo doesn’t go in for the gritted bleakness of the likes of Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series and while there is a smattering of curse words throughout the book, the f-word isn’t used as a universal adjective.

I very much enjoyed Ringo’s military hardware and the descriptions of the training regime as human troops struggle to prepare against a lethal enemy while the clock is ticking. The notion that the troops are only as good as their ability to use the latest hardware with speed and efficiency is entirely plausible. However, there are places where the pace does dip – too much time is devoted to the points system and auction allocating places to the influx of volunteers. My imagination also faltered over the bizarre image of a sentient space ship in the shape of a naked woman which I found unbelievable and distracting. Overall, though, this is an entertaining read which I expect Ringo fans will thoroughly enjoy and I will try get hold of the sequel to find out what happens next.
7/10